by Ken B.
The opening credits of A Better Life roll as Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) rides in a beat up pickup truck to his job as a gardener. When we first see him, he sleeps on the couch of his small run down house. The places he works are lavish Los Angeles dwellings. He spends the day working in the sun, on harnesses working his way up tall trees. He comes home late at night, to his son Luis (José Julián), and sends him off to bed. Carlos goes to sleep, on the couch again, and another day begins. Continue reading
Part five of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
This was a personally divisive movie. Wim Wender’s Pina is dazzling. It’s a visual spectacle. But it’s hardly entertaining. Maybe entertainment is not the point, you say, but I did not find it to be greatly substantive, either. I am giving it two and a half stars, and one hundred percent of that is for the spectacular cinematography, choreography, and dancing. It showcases some of the wonderful performances created by Pina Bausch (1940 – 2009), a German choreographer who designed fantastically surreal pieces for a passionate ensemble in Wuppertal, its members originating from all parts of the world. It almost didn’t get made, as Bausch died days before filming was set to begin. It, in its finished state, however, is a monument to the life and career of someone who was undoubtedly a true artist. I just wish I could have enjoyed it more.
You’ve probably deduced by now that Pina is not a documentary in the conventional sense. Not even the talking heads are normal – instead, the voiceover of a comment is placed over a video of the subject (usually a current member of the ensemble) staring before the camera. It creates the illusion of contemplation over obvious statements. Contemplation over obvious statements is indeed the entire point of Pina, both the film and the subject’s work.
The pieces Bausch created were innovations in the field of Tanztheater (dance theatre): silent, elaborate, and wordless performances to music and at least some variation of a narrative. They are highly interpretive, playing with a constant and wide number of elements, from a large patch of dirt to a big artificial boulder and gallons of water to a breathtaking and awe-inspiring scene involving chairs stacked on top of each other. Thanks to the cinematic treatment of the performances here, the shots are varied. Whether in a theatre or a picturesque outdoor (or indoor) setting, there’s always an unmistakably deliberate nature of the cinematography.
But I didn’t “like” like it, as I’ve mentioned before. When someone calls a movie “great” or even just “good”, it’s because the film made a connection with them in some way. And despite all of the frills and beauty on display in Pina, that personal connection never happened. It was a more or less passive experience, with some sporadic bursts of immersion peppered along the 103 minute production.
A star rating denotes how much I recommend a film, and the truth is, I can barely recommend Pina. Like all surrealism-based works, it is highly subjective. Most have embraced it unconditionally, but I just didn’t see it. Maybe I’ll watch it again someday and have a more (or even less) favorable viewpoint. Some movies are like that, and Pina seems like one. The final advice? If any of what was described above sounds interesting to you. See it. You’ll absolutely love it. If you’re only partially or not even warmed by the same passages, don’t bother. This is the unwritten rule of a halfway competent film review, and it applies especially here.
Part two of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
Everyone’s heard the story about how during the filming of E.T., the studio sought the permission of the manufacturers of M&M’s to use their product in the scene where Elliott lures E.T. upstairs. Mars, Inc. says no, but the Hershey Company, hoping to promote Reese’s Pieces, gladly allow the insertion, and upon the film’s release, sales of Reese’s Pieces go up over seventy percent. It’s product placement at its finest and most effective.
Ah, product placement. Advertising. It’s everywhere. This is the point of Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (or POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, more on that later), a funny and fascinating look into how this kind of thing works. The film focuses on itself, as Spurlock goes around to various companies, looking for funding for his project in exchange for using and showing the products in return. Every cent spent on this movie comes from corporation dollars. As Spurlock picks up more and more sponsors, what he does becomes more limited. This is both a comedic element for the viewer and an impediment on exposing any real jawdropping truths. He takes us through the contracts: Every drink he’s seen drinking must be of the same brand, every food must be a brand of frozen pizza, every hotel used a Hyatt, and don’t even think about saying anything against the country of Germany. The biggest ad spot costs $1 million, and will be the most heavily featured, appearing in every way possible and above the title on promotional material. The buyer is POM Wonderful, manufacturer of pomegranate based fruit drinks. Indeed, their hourglass shaped bottles are constantly visible on tabletops during meetings and interviews. He even films a few 30 second commercials for them, shown throughout the picture. He also shows us different aspects of the film’s advertising, down to designing the posters.
By the end of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, you feel like a pawn of commercialism. You recognize the constant bombardment of advertising that faces you wherever you go (unless you live in São Paulo, Brazil, where outdoor ads are banned; a facet highlighted within the film). The intertwining of entertainment and commerce has plainly existed since the dawn of both, but it’s amazing how much of it we choose to ignore.
At 87 minutes, the movie comes in slim. While the DVD copy I received contained no special features, regular retail editions contain nearly an hour of deleted scenes. It’s worth wondering whether a longer version of the film may have contained more interesting and new information. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this movie as is, but most viewers with a decent amount of knowledge on the subject of advertising and product placement won’t learn much that they didn’t know before. The interviews sometimes feel overly abbreviated. It’s a shame, because a wide variety of people are reached out to: from filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino, to politicians, such as Ralph Nader, and businessmen like Donald Trump, who has unfortunately tried to be a politician.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold takes an interesting topic and approaches it in an ingenious way, but it never really reaches its full potential. It’s amusing in its own right, but no groundbreaking ideas or facts are ever presented. Watch it, but don’t expect anything too great.
Part two of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
It is idiotic to deny the basic message set forth by Forks Over Knives – the idea that regular consumption of red meats and processed foods will have/has been having a horrid effect on our weight and general health, and this damage can be reduced or reversed if one adopts a “whole foods, plant based diet”. However, this doesn’t mean that the documentary spreading this word is very good. Lee Fulkerson’s film has a tendency to become relentlessly boring, watching the same few talking heads spew facts and figures, with the occasional personal account that stirs up a meager amount of interest. You don’t really listen until someone says something especially gripping (like a questionable statement that milk isn’t really that good for you, or that six of the eleven people on the USDA’s board of nutritional guidelines have ties to major members of the food industry).
We have a few framing ideas that go around the 96 minute runtime. The first is Fulkerson himself consulting a program run by two doctors that support an organic vegan diet, and decides to try their thirteen week program himself. Next are interviews with two of the earliest and most prominent figures of this movement, T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, and then regular people whose lives have effectively been saved by adhering to these concepts.
There are some things that could be perceived as actual factual missteps, but not many. The most egregious was the misreading of the findings of health in Norway, before, during, and after the Nazi occupation of it. The film states that meat and dairy were heavily restricted post-occupation, and during that time, the number of circulatory problems and diseases recorded dropped, before rising after the war when such foods were returned. The figures mentioned were pretty devastating, so I did some research for verification, and found that what is not mentioned in the film was the rationing of tobacco that also occurred at the same time.
On a technical level, there’s not much to complain over, but nothing to write home about either. It’s all crisp and uniform, with the standard shots of interviews, a dose of stock footage, and as is the law with health documentaries, shots of overweight people filmed below the head as to avoid any potential legal concerns. Every once in a while a computer generated simulation of an organ under the stress of a medical condition is shown. It’s never consistently engaging, and it has a cold and exterior kind of classroom aide feel running throughout. Forks Over Knives is a rare example of a mediocre movie that is highly recommendable. Regardless of whether or not one adheres to its suggestions, it’s still an important subject to be discussed. It is a documentary to be watched for its message, but more contemptible as legitimate film.
by Ken B.
It is extremely possible I lack the concentration, life experience, or overall patience to understand The Tree of Life. It is also possible I was just a witness to a Terrence Malick 139 minute self-congratulatory session. Does this guy have some sort of god complex or something?
Roughly 40 minutes of this film consist of opera music and high-quality video from outer space, or recreating outer space. There’s the occasional voiceover of mildly incoherent but not altogether unnecessary phrasing. Its delivery in a hushed whisper doesn’t help any fighting off pomposity. When a storyline is presented, it’s nonlinear. We flip between the 1950s in Waco, Texas and a present day city. There is one consistent character; Jack O’Brien, who is played by Hunter McCracken in the past and Sean Penn in the present. One day, Adult Jack is thinking about his father. Through the 1950s segments (which comprise of most of this film), we find out about this man (BRAD PITT). The character, sadly underdeveloped to the point of never having a definitive first name, has a wife (JESSICA CHASTAIN), and two other sons besides Jack. Mr. O’Brien, while unquestionably well-intentioned and not without love by any means, clearly has anger issues, but they stop short of physical violence. He yells a lot at his family, but they all take it quietly, which Young Jack grows increasingly upset over.
We’re led to believe that Jack’s never really forgotten about it. The first time we see him as an adult, he’s calling his father, profusely apologizing for something he said. By the end of the film, we possibly know what it is. Malick appears to imply but never confirms or denies, similar to how the viewer must use detective work to figure where the story takes place. It is shown briefly twice: The front page of a newspaper reads “Waco” in the title of the publication, and a pesticide truck rolls by with the city’s name printed on the side.
Another example of Malick’s subtle attitude is a color scheme clue. When Mrs. O’Brien gives birth for the first time, everything in the hospital room is bathed in white. The staff, the light outside the window, the sheets on the bed, and her hospital gown. Later, when we see Mr. O’Brien hold his firstborn son, he’s up against a wall cast in a murky dark color, a sign of how unlikable he will be to his children. Or perhaps something like this: The womb is safe. The rest of the world is not. Or perhaps something like this: A great red herring/coincidence.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, a collaborator of both Malick and Alfonso Cuarón, is vivid. The contrast between the world of Young Jack and the world of Adult Jack is clear in the shooting method. Adult Jack is an architect, he lives in a modern house and works in a modern building, with fast glass elevators and an emphasis on natural light. Lubezki makes sure this is highlighted. Young Jack lives in a stereotypical suburban home. Uniform shots of dialogue – comfort, with an eerie undertone when needed.
For all of its intriguing ideas (or possibly because of all its intriguing ideas), a scary amount of The Tree of Life comes off as pretentious, art house ready, and elusive for the sake of being elusive. It is parts admirable and frustrating. with the word “vague” spreading all over every frame of it. There’s a point when Chastain’s character holds up her baby, points up off camera range, and says “That’s where God lives.” At this point in the film, Malick had done nothing to convince me he hadn’t placed the director’s chair in that exact spot.
The Tree of Life thinks it’s so important and entitled that it goes all out showing representations of the beginning of the planet (with a brief depiction of dinosaurs) and the end of it, with the scientifically agreed conclusion of the sun’s transformation into a red dwarf doing it in. But even those scenes aren’t the definitive beginning or end. The first shot is a quote from the Old Testament Book of Job (which makes sense – Jack’s initials are J – O – B and he goes through an awful lot of struggle). The last live-action shot is comprised of countless people interacting on a beach. I won’t say exactly what happens there (Lubezki does some good work framing that).
The Tree of Life was the kind of movie where I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked it for a good forty minutes after it ended. I have now come to the conclusion that I am moderately appreciative of its creativity and deeply enraged by its self-evaluation and supposed sense of importance (so, I guess kinda what would happen if I made a movie). Here, amidst an array of great acting and Malick being the deity (even more literally than the literal definition of a director), is a final product that will mean something different to all who watch it. Helps, because then there are more who could potentially call it a masterpiece. I couldn’t say that in good conscience… yet.
by Ken B.
Koichi (KOKI MAEDA) hears from a classmate that when two bullet trains pass each other on parallel rails, the force created is so great that you can scream out a wish and it will come true. He then is further convinced that the plan he has been conceiving must go through. You see, for around six months now his parents have been divorced and his musician father (JÔ ODAGIRI) along with Koichi’s younger brother Ryu (OHSHIRÔ MAEDA) have moved to a different city, which is a considerable distance away. Koichi lives with his mother and grandparents. The two brothers scheme a plan to reunite, and they each bring a few of their friends with them. This is the center of I Wish (Kiseki), a well made movie from Hirokazu Kora-eda.
While it’s hard to deny the existence of occasional overt manipulative emotion in the script, it does not harm the enjoyability or overall message of the film. Kora-eda has been able to coax the child actors into wonderful, relatable, and believable performance. While watching this, any predispositions that you might have due to previous negative experiences with younger actors are fairly and efficiently dissolved (at least, for this movie).
Music is not of key importance here, there are 10, 15 minute long segments with just dialogue or exterior city noises. This is unquestionably a positive. Since there are times throughout the film where there is a tightrope walk between good emotion and overt emotion, some kind of The Cider House Rules-esque piano solo in the background would have made a big, obvious negative.
At 128 minutes, the pacing may be the only significant problem with I Wish. It does run on longer than it probably should have; there are some scenes either unnecessary or dragged out. It isn’t a total deal breaker, but it is indeed noticeable.
I Wish contains a lot of interesting scenes, some boring scenes, and one powerful scene that will probably stick with me for a while. It is at the end, and as Koichi and his friends stand at one end of a train station with Ryu and his companions at the other end, they wave goodbye as a train speeds past, obscuring one from the other. The complexity in the undertones of the scene, whether real or just me imagining them, were worthy of some extra thought on it afterwards. The moments like these in the film, from the ash-raining volcano in Koichi’s home town to a particular exchange on horsemeat sashimi can be taken at face value as just a simple throwaway, or something more. Despite its flaws, I Wish is a movie worthy of respect and evaluation.